Ian McEwan has had a noble career. Only one of his ten novels is less than satisfactory, and it’s not his fault that that book won the Booker Prize. He seems less egotistical and self-satisfied than other big names from his generation, and among his many considerable achievements is at least one cast-iron classic, The Comfort of Strangers.
His latest novel, Saturday, concerns one day in the life of Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon with strange hands. He is a down-to-earth sort, an atheist who finds quantum physics far-fetched. He is close to both his children, although his daughter Daisy, an aspiring poet who ‘wears short-skirted business suits and fresh white blouses, and rarely drinks and does her best work before 9am’, considers him ignorant and insensitive, and is trying to rectify these shortcomings by giving him a reading list including Darwin and Conrad. He follows her instruction without complaint, but when he is unimpressed by Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Daisy tells him that the novel is designed to reveal the damage done by men like him, although it is unclear whether we are supposed to take this as a daughter’s facetiousness or the author’s connection of Perowne with Flaubert’s Charles Bovary. Certainly he is not an incompetent doctor; it’s hard to tell whether he’s an incompetent human being. Perowne is an interesting character, often unpleasant in his cold rationality, yet open to the possibility that he might be missing out on something. He finds a joy in his work that ‘brings a contentment he never finds with any passive form of entertainment’. Unable to spend an afternoon on the sofa with a book, Perowne considers writing poetry a poor way to occupy a life, which is hard for a man whose father-in-law and daughter have chosen this as their occupation. His son Theo also prefers art to science, avoiding university to become a blues guitarist.
The Saturday on which the events of this novel take place is not part of just any weekend, but Saturday February 15th, 2003. It is the day of the huge anti-war march, a protest Perowne feels uncertain about. He chides himself for playing the hawk with his daughter, and the dove with his friend and colleague Jay Strauss. He cannot help seeing the protestors as naïve, and, damningly, pro-Saddam. He denies them any political or historical awareness, and sees the march as an example of English dottiness. Yet he also doesn’t believe that Tony Blair is necessarily a worthy leader acting in a responsible manner. For him, Blair is damned not just by his political actions, but by an amusing faux pas he made at a party to celebrate the opening of the Tate Modern. In the novel’s funniest scene, the Prime Minister mistakes Perowne for a modern artist and claims that he and Cherie adore the two of his paintings they have hanging up in Downing Street. What condemns Blair in Perowne’s eyes is not that he makes the mistake, but that he refuses to acknowledge it, holding firm to his conviction in the face of incontrovertible evidence. Here McEwan mischievously skewers the Prime Minister’s character with devastating accuracy.
Ignoring the protest, Perowne is driving to a squash game with his colleague when he accidentally gets into a minor scrape with another vehicle near the Spearmint Rhino strip club on Tottenham Court Road. He has collided with a man named Baxter and his two colleagues Nigel and Nark. Comedy villain names aside, these are convincing characters, and it is immediately evident that Perowne is in real danger. His only chance of escape is to smooth-talk Baxter, something that is made easier by his realisation that Baxter suffers from Huntington’s Disease. But when he uses Baxter’s confusion and inability to control his friends to escape, he humiliates him in such a way that it becomes clear Baxter will seek retribution.
In some of his best books, McEwan’s greatest alchemy is to use a simple thriller plot to examine the deepest existential questions. When Baxter shows up at Perowne’s family dinner, the novel starts to seem like another reworking of William Wyler’s 1955 film The Desperate Hours. There is a queasy familiarity to the family-in-peril theme as Baxter instructs Perowne’s daughter to strip and holds a knife to his wife’s throat. But, thankfully, the situation is quickly resolved (in a unique and original, if slightly far-fetched way) and Saturday becomes all the more interesting as McEwan strips away the suspense to return to the moral, political and aesthetic questions which drive the first two-thirds of the novel.
It’s hard to tell if Saturday will be as successful as Atonement, which seemed to strike an emotional chord in a large number of readers, but McEwan fans will not be disappointed. This is an elegant and sophisticated novel, which is beautifully written and creates a wonderful sense of unease. It is also likely to be a strong contender for this year’s Booker. If it seems slightly perverse to write a novel about a man who almost certainly wouldn’t read a novel about himself (and would no doubt consider the book a terrible failure if he did so), it’s also a marvellously sustained dark joke, as McEwan uses literature, rather than a scalpel, to expose his neurosurgeon’s brain.